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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9299

Senator HUTCHINS (5:30 PM) —I rise tonight to support the motion in the name of Senator Carr. I would like to share with the Senate my experiences of a visit to Broome a few months ago, in the company of the shadow minister for education, Michael Lee. We were given the opportunity to attend a presentation by students to the board of governors of the University of Notre Dame. As I recall, almost all of the eight or nine students were of Aboriginal origin and were mature age students. Only one of them was male. They told us that they had returned to education so that they would be trained as teachers. As I was listening to the presentations, it became obvious that a number of these students, particularly the women, had been through some of life's difficulties and had had a rocky road—until they decided to take control of their lives. By doing that, they decided to do something not only for themselves but for their communities: to become teachers.

Both Michael and I were advised that a number of the teachers who teach in the north-west of Australia are of European origin and that Aborigines have traditionally only been the teachers' aides. Notre Dame University, which is headed by Sister Pat Rhatigan, is trying to train Aborigines to go back into their communities and teach their own people rather than be assistants to white teachers. I think that is commendable. And it is commendable that those people had the courage—after, as I said earlier, going through some rocky times—to go back and try to better themselves and to do something for their communities. As I understand from the information that we have received via the ministerial council, of any group in the Australian community, Aborigines are the most likely to return to study. The rest of the population does not. That is commendable.

I also recall from what was put to us there that, unfortunately, even though resources are being made available for Aboriginal education, the number of young males that are not making themselves available for teaching or for school is actually lower now than it ever has been since Aboriginal education was taken up as an issue by the Commonwealth and state governments. I know that the people in the north-west of Australia are very concerned about this phenomenon. They believe that putting indigenous teachers into indigenous communities will, in a great way, assist in making sure that these young men avail themselves of education and that they will come back to the schools and be able to make the contribution to their community that we all expect education to train us for.

That is why I am a bit disturbed about the actions of the government in taking away this assistance to people who are on the lower socioeconomic scale in this country. Even the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, at the ministerial council held in Alice Springs in September of this year, mentioned the issue in the paper that he presented. I am sure this has been quoted earlier but I will quote it again. He said that only 13.6 per cent of indigenous people had a post-school education, whereas the general population's statistic is 34.4 per cent. I know that goodwill and positive ideas about what people would like to see happen for Aborigines extend on both sides of the House, but the actions that are being taken now by the government in reducing this opportunity for indigenous people to be educated will have serious ramifications.

As I said, with the board of governors at Notre Dame, we heard some fairly harrowing tales of people who had been through some of life's rough stretches. But they had decided to do something about it. Through scholarships and Abstudy, these people have been able to lift themselves up, to get away from that dependency that we hear so much rhetoric from the government about. The way that the government is performing on that issue is something that we will see the detriments of, not the benefits of, in the years to come.

As it has no doubt been reported, the report from ATSIC prepared by Wendy Brabham and Associate Professor John Henry from the Institute of Koori Education in Deakin University outlined who would be advantaged by these changes to Abstudy and who would be disadvantaged. Essentially, the people who will be disadvantaged are the ones that are in the colleges, the TAFEs and the universities now. Eighty per cent of the indigenous students enrolled in universities and colleges now are people of mature age.

They are the ones that have had the courage to go back and try to do something with their lives. They are the ones we should be encouraging rather than discouraging in the operation of the schemes and benefits that the Australian government provides. As Senator Stott Despoja mentioned, about 900 people will be advantaged as a result of these changes but 15,000 indigenous people will be worse off. I do not think we would like to see that, and I am pretty sure that those students who struggle as a result of their continuing education would not like to see that. Even though we have been grappling with our past, it is sad that we now will take even more benefits away from those disadvantaged indigenous people.

I repeat again and again that it took a lot of courage for those men and women to present themselves for education. I believe that, if we help them lift their stature and the way they see themselves, we will reap the benefits of that in our own community. We need to train these people so that they can go back into their communities and lift the stature and standing of the people that they live with and the community they are part of. The government is putting a huge hurdle in the way of courageous men and women.

The resolution that has been outlined, which is from a press release by Mr Djerrkura, is a sad one and is saying to us all to wake up to ourselves, to look at our consciences and do something that is right and proper and assists in the healing that we have commenced in this country. If we do not do things like this, and we continue to take away opportunities for indigenous people that we previously gave them, I fear the situation will not be as good as it should be and that what will happen is that those communities will slide further and further into despair.

It is up to us in the Australian Senate and the Australian parliament to say to these people that we are with them and that we will encourage them and do everything we can to make sure they no longer have the dependency that we hear so often from the government that they have. These mature age men and women need our assistance. I would hope that well-meaning members of the government who have a lot of goodwill and commonsense will see the error of what Dr Kemp is doing and persuade him to reinstate this very good scheme that trains people to look after themselves.